Access to food, and at what price, is a potent political issue in the Middle East today. The question is posed most starkly in conditions of war and armed conflict. The recent blockade of Palestinian camps near Beirut over many months reduced the inhabitants to starvation and compelled Palestinian forces to withdraw from Lebanese villages further south. Last year southern Sudan provided other images of blockade and hunger as government and rebel forces contested that region’s political future. Articles in this issue discuss the politics of famine relief in Ethiopia and Somalia — famines that to begin with resulted from the degradations of war in the Horn of Africa.

More often, the struggle for food takes place out of the headlines. At issue are not battlefield positions but foreign debts and loans. The protagonists are international bankers and government finance ministers. In just the past few months, Morocco and Tunisia have signed agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that, as conditions for rescheduling their enormous foreign debts, will reduce government subsidies on basic food staples and thus raise prices. Egypt is in the midst of similar negotiations. The governments are justifiably nervous about the consequences, remembering the bread riots that have erupted in Casablanca, Tunis and Cairo over the past decade. But even more apprehensive are the many hundreds of thousands of families already living on the margin who dread what this means for their daily struggle to survive.

Food represents an important currency in US relations with the region, second perhaps only to weapons. Articles here detail how food aid has been used for political leverage in Egypt and Ethiopia. In the Gulf war, food has been part of Washington’s tilt toward Baghdad. Since 1983, Iraq has become the leading beneficiary of US agricultural credits in the world, averaging nearly $600 million per year.

The food story in the Middle East today has more than a few ironies. A decade ago, Sudan was being touted as the future “breadbasket” of the Arab world, the petrodollar answer to loose talk in Washington about the US “food weapon.” Gulf money, Western technology and Sudanese land and labor would make this region the granary of the Mediterranean it had been in ancient times. Reality could hardly have responded more harshly. Ten years later Sudan was the one Arab country to experience widespread famine, and it is Saudi Arabia which can boast of its “amber waves of grain.” But the Saudi story is hardly the success that statistics might first suggest. Vahid Nowshirvani exposes the underside of Saudi Arabia’s “green revolution,” which lavishly subsidizes royal family investors at enormous cost to the country’s treasury and ecosystem while marginalizing the traditional agricultural smallholders in Asir province.

Another aspect of food politics in the oil years was the infitah the “economic opening” — pioneered by Egypt’s Anwar al-Sadat and echoed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In Egypt, Jean-Jacques Dethier and Kathy Funk show, this included an “opening” to staggering imports of wheat and an important point of leverage for Washington on Egypt’s political options. By Robert Springborg’s account of Iraq, a whole coterie of high officials and private entrepreneurs with close ties to the regime have been the prime beneficiaries of the “opening” there. One of the most successful modern-sector “farmers” turns out be the minister of defense, who is also brother-in-law to Saddam Hussein. In Iraq, while some have benefited, others have suffered. Food products like meat and vegetables are more widely available but production of cereals — the staples of the poor — has actually declined, and food has become more expensive for all.

Not surprisingly, the years of petrodollar surplus coincide with some marked improvement in the overall picture of food availability in the Middle East region , by the admittedly rough calculations of the World Food Surveys of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In 1969-71, between 23 and 34 million people — 15 to 22 percent of the total population — suffered from some form of malnutrition. A decade later, despite a substantial increase in population, the estimated numbers had declined to between 16 and 25 million people, or eight to 12 percent of the population.*

Thus a region which has seen its population nearly double over the past quarter century has managed to feed its people and even upgrade the average diet. Of all parts of the Third World, the Middle East and North Africa showed the most rapid growth of food consumption — an average 3.9 percent per year over the 1966-1980 period. More people are consuming more food and getting more diversified diets. The figures show large increases in the consumption of fruits and vegetables, fats (mainly vegetable oils), meats — and sugar. The greatest increases occurred via imports by the oil-exporting countries. For the wealthy, the transformation has produced new health and nutrition problems; heart diseases, diabetes and obesity have become more prevalent in countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

The other side, of course, is that 25 million is still a staggering number of hungry people in a region which has experienced large income gains but is now entering an era of economic contraction. Who are these 25 million? They are very large parts of society in countries like Afghanistan, Sudan and Mauritania, countries afflicted by war and drought. And averages mask enormous differences between classes and between urban and rural populations. A 1980 survey in Tunisia found more than a third of the urban population and a fifth of the rural population were getting less than their minimum caloric requirements to function productively, and close to half of this group was seriously malnourished. In Egypt, a 1981 survey found 35 percent of the population getting less than the necessary 2000 calories per day. A 1979 nutrition survey in the Yemen Arab Republic found severe malnutrition among more than half of urban children and two-thirds of rural children.

In some countries of the region — Pakistan and Morocco among them — the absolute incomes of some groups have actually declined over the last 20 years, despite considerable growth in gross national product (GNP) and agricultural output. Changes in the agricultural sector — particularly as better-off farmers increase their holdings at the expense of small, marginal producers — are partly responsible. Advantages of size for production, though, have often proved illusory. FAO studies of Iraq and Pakistan, for instance, indicate that output per hectare on farms smaller than five hectares is greater than on farms of more than 20 hectares.

Growth in Middle East agricultural sectors has ranged from the spectacular to the abysmal (Columns B and F). The largest increases were registered by the oil producing countries with large incomes, small populations and negligible traditional agricultural bases. But some countries with large agricultural bases, like Syria, Turkey and Iran, showed solid growth over much of the last two decades. Government policies in Turkey, Jordan and Syria have been unusually supportive of small farmers in terms of price structures, credit allocation and investments.

Some of the greatest gains, though, have been in industrial crops, in some cases primarily for export. For most countries, food production increases have not kept pace with population growth. Agricultural productivity (output per worker and per acre) has generally failed to keep pace with the growth of demand. Grain production per person over the last 15 years has declined dramatically in Iran (7 percent), Ethiopia (11 percent), Egypt (18 percent) and Iraq (54 percent). As the table shows (Columns C and D), agriculture has become a relatively smaller part of the economic structures of the countries of the region, and the proportion of the labor force in agriculture has shrunk.

In most of the region, agricultural development has to cope with a relative scarcity of water. Automated drip irrigation is one promising technical solution, since it results in great savings in water and energy, and increased crop yields, but its development and application so far is primarily in Israel. Sixty percent of world desalinization capacity is in the Persian Gulf region, but the great expense of this process prohibits its extensive use in the near future. The problem is rather to prevent further salinization of existing fresh water supplies. Heavy pumping of ground water poses a real threat of salt water contamination in Syria, Israel and the Gulf states, as the water table drops below sea level. This damage is difficult if not impossible to reverse. Soil salinization from poor irrigation drainage is common. Flying over countries like Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, one sees great tracts of once fertile cropland now glistening white and barren from salt concentrations, and Egypt is beginning to suffer from this complication as well. Other expanses of cropland have been lost to encroaching deserts in North Africa, or to expanding urban settlements, as around Cairo and Baghdad. Overgrazing, deforestation and shorter crop rotation cycles have led to serious erosion problems.

Thus for the Middle East region improvements in nutrition and increased food consumption have depended on sharply higher imports rather than on increased local production. Higher incomes — in some countries very sharply higher — have increased demand for food at a much greater rate than population growth and urbanization rates alone would account for. Today, the region imports over half of all the food it consumes and over half the net imports of all Third World countries. In Egypt, the largest importer of them all, the issue of “food security” and “food dependency” in general, and especially the role of US food loans, is on the agenda of the political opposition.

Higher income, export markets and the growth of industry and services relative to agriculture has also shifted the composition of demand for agricultural products. Local production has responded to growing markets for vegetables, fruits and meat products, which generate higher revenues and tend to be more loosely regulated by the state. While this increased production meets the needs of some higher-income urban dwellers, it is often inaccessible for masses of low-income, fixed salary consumers. Total production and average yields for basic cereal crops have tended to stagnate. Egypt’s crop yields per hectare are already among the world's highest. Here increased demand has been met almost exclusively by imports. The percentage of export earnings required to cover food imports is quite significant, especially for the countries with sizeable populations (Column H).

If much of the income from oil and from worker remittances has been spent to import foods, much that was invested locally has not borne fruit. In the days of petrodollar surpluses, there was a tendency just to throw money at the dilemma of food production. Sudan’s failure and Saudi Arabia’s “success” exhibit this approach. Libya’s “man-made river” scheme is a current instance of such extravagance. Investments in new technology and land reclamation tended to be capital intensive, and did not slow the movement of farm labor to the cities. Neither did they anticipate ecological consequences which have dampened productivity growth.

Government policies toward the agricultural sector, and especially toward small farmers, have ranged from benign neglect to outright pillage. Only Turkey, Syria and Jordan have practiced something like constructive support. In most of the region, price and credit policies generally favor industry over agriculture, urban over rural. The production of basic foods, especially grains, has stagnated. Such favors as the governments do bestow tend to accrue to large and already successful commercial farmers, contributing to the consolidation of landholdings and the dispossession of small producers.

As the states of the Middle East lurch from the heady spending days of oil and infitah into an era of budget deficits and foreign exchange crises, as the world price of oil continues to fall and the price of wheat continues to rise, the profound crisis of the agricultural sector and the related questions of land and food may well assume dimensions that will threaten the social order. Stagnating or declining per capita income for significant portions of the population, rising food imports and massive external debt are some of the major issues that will frame political relations between classes and between nations in the decade ahead.


* FAO includes in the Middle East all the countries in the table plus Afghanistan, Bahrain, Qatar and Cyprus, but less Israel.


Sources: E. Boutrif, “Food and Nutrition Situation in the Near East: Evolution and Need for Monitoring,” Paper prepared for the Inter-country Workshop on Nutrition Assessment, Cairo, November 1-5, 1986; Lester R. Brown, “The Worldwide Loss of Cropland,” WorldWatch Paper 24 (October 1978); Lester R. Brown and Jodi L. Jacobson, “Our Demographically Divided World,” WorldWatch Paper 74 (December 1986); Erik Eckholm, “The Dispossessed of the Earth: Land Reform and Sustainable Development,” Worldwatch Paper 30 (June 1979); Sandra Postel, “Water: Rethinking Management in an Age of Scarcity,” Worldwatch Paper 62 (December 1984); Leonardo A. Paulino, Food in the Third World: Past Trends and Projections to 2000 (Washington: International Food Policy Research Institute Research Report 52, June 1986).

How to cite this article:

Karen Pfeifer, Joe Stork "Bullets, Banks and Bushels," Middle East Report 145 (March/April 1987).

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